“Only to the extent that man exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him. In this lies the dignity of daring.” (Karfried Graf Dürckheim)
The ‘Karate Way’ and training in Martial Arts has offered many gifts in learning and growth. I am once again filled with gratitude for the experiences on the path that have offered extraordinary opportunities for development and ultimately for living a better life. These last years have truly been my most physically-intense training years and years filled with lessons providing more depth to my Karate experience. As it happens, it has been the ‘unwanted’ or the uncomfortable moments that have led to the greatest rewards.
Bruce Lee said, “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” This statement has been an important theme in my life and training. Accepting where I am, following the compelling drive to become a better version of who I am, and ‘bending with the wind’ as the icy, awakening slap of tribulation has allowed me to experience the richest of joys and the deepest understanding of peace. When the dojo lights are turned off and the door is locked, the training doesn’t end. In those quiet moments before the class begins and after the students leave, the Sensei breathes and trains and dreams. And it is often our aim of self-improvement that drives us forward, even in the silent times. I am filled with gratitude for the gifts received through karate and as a Sensei, it makes me feel alive to be able to share tools and experiences with others in the hope that they too can experience the many benefits.
In the last seven years, I decided to devote some dedicated time to exploring another Martial Art, Judo (and also wrestling), in order to expand my training, to enlarge my understanding of karate, and to experience personal development. Learning Kata Shujakku or “Red Sparrow '' at that time I would learn, was fitting as it felt as if there were elements of rising again as a Phoenix through the flames (in training and in life). This would become my reality. It took time and challenges in training and in life to begin to understand some of our karate tools. I worked hard to just keep showing up, and as a result, experienced incredible personal development.
Words will never express the depth of gratitude that I have for the opportunity to walk this path and for those who also shared this path, encouraging me along the way.
I have learned how to train with a new perspective
Training can offer a perspective on life. We can learn to respond to challenges in life as we respond to challenges in training. They are the same thing.
Although I have played varsity sports and have had experience with many different types of physical training, this last decade has taught me how to train on a new level and how to have a mindset that would allow growth to take place as never before. I continued to learn the balance between working hard through a gruelling training session and experiencing healing and wholeness through recovery methods. This physical and mental balance can be found in the “hard” and “soft” offered in Goju Ryu.
There were countless grueling practices that became the norm. I stopped being surprised that most people need to work hard to experience success. For these experiences, I am so grateful. I was able to survive by putting one foot in front of the next and by just showing up. “Happiness, success, excellence: They are not something you get for knowing the path; they are something you experience by walking it.” (Steve Mariboli). In order to learn something fully, a person really needs to just "do." This has been true for my experience with Karate and also in other training disciplines.
I remember my first wrestling practice. I wasn’t sure I would even make it through the warm-up. The coach said, “If you can wrestle, you can do anything.” By the end of the practice, I remember thinking that was probably true. I wondered if it was normal for my body to hurt so much! The partner-somersaults and gymnastics requirements were just the beginning of what would become my new normal. I was reminded back to the beginning of karate training where I wasn’t sure if I’d make it another second holding a shiko dachi, or if I could do one more pushup, or receive one more strike. We may have left class covered in bruises (and blood), but feeling better, and grateful for learning.
The first Judo Ontario training camp I attended had a similar effect. During the warmup, every single person was handstand walking as if it was completely normal. And it was. No one stood around saying “they can’t do that”; they don’t feel comfortable...everyone tried everything. There was no place for Ego on the training mat. And when you’re working hard enough, there is no time to hesitate; you’re in or not.
By noon I was beyond exhausted. I sat in my car for an hour during lunch trying to recover so I could make it through the afternoon. Although the training sessions didn’t get easier, I was able to stop fighting the inevitable. After 147 matches and a trillion pushups and uchikomi drills, the body just moves one foot in front of the next and the mind is gone. Every person there asks who will rise again? Who will give up the fight? I will rise again. The repetition and practice is what makes such a difference. In so many ways, making it through the gruelling practices day after day is what brought satisfaction...I wasn’t always the best at what I did, but I tried my best, and that made all the difference. Showing up to a tournament has its own challenges, staying the training course is what develops growth.
Our training and competition can be a reflection of what is happening in the mind and heart. We can ‘enter the mind through the body.’ Fighting requires a whole new level of grit...especially because at the end of the day, we are just fighting ourselves. I decided (however painful it would be) that I needed to expose myself over and over to annihilation in order to learn. This is not to say that I did not experience this beforehand… I have received many spinning back kicks to the solar plexus, but I was in a new mind space where I could learn more from the experience.
At this time, I felt much more confident with my Karate than I did with Judo or other martial arts, and I recognized for a chapter I would need to focus on what I was trying to learn. I would learn that I needed time to absorb new skills before I could begin to make the connections between the arts.
I was thrown countless times every practice. To help with my training, our wrestling coach would also use aspects of the practices to help me train for judo. He would have me work on one throw over and over again until I began to understand. In judo you have “to feel” to do… seeing is not enough. I remember at the end of one particularly grueling practice, I was so tired I used my hands and training partner to get up...and was so focused on the effort, not the technique. He said, “If you focus on just the effort, it will always feel difficult; focus on the technique. You cannot afford to focus on anything else.” Eventually you don’t even need to focus on that...the body will react and move as you have trained; your mind is no longer on effort or technique. This is a beautiful place.
What we focus on or what we look at will often determine where we end up.
When practicing kata, a practitioner must look before defending or attacking. As well, in wrestling and judo, one must look in the direction one wishes to go. You will end up where you look; the body follows the head. I think this is an important concept to consider in life as well. What am I focused on? Where is my attention? what am I looking at?... that is where I will end up… When we state the things that are important to us, it is vital that we look at how we spend our time (or what we are focused on). If we say our health is important to us, but we don’t spend time on it, is it really that important to us?
I have many memories of learning the lesson of “you end up where you look” as I’d attempt a leg attack and have my head down instead of up, and find myself face eating the mat.
While practicing kata, I was reminded that the body follows the head. I was corrected to look first and then move. It is such a gift to be able to receive life lessons from simple movements. Where we look or what we focus on will determine our results and how we feel. If we focus on effort, that is what we will feel.
During these particularly tough practices, when we felt as if we had nothing left, more was asked of us… 40 more throws, 50 more sprawls, and somehow we made it through and learned there is more fight within us. Sometimes you just have to put one foot in front of the next and before long you’ll realize you’ve made the journey. I have lost count of the number of times I got into my car at 4:00 am to drive to Montreal on my own for a tournament. I remember showing up at the Quebec Open for the first time, not sure of where to weigh in, how to find my matches...which gi to wear, when to bow, let alone, how I’d win a match… It was hard and sometimes lonely. The time in on the mats doesn’t always guarantee a win in competition, but it does guarantee growth, perseverance, and the ability to get a job done...even when you don’t speak very good French.
As the years progressed, so did my training experience and skills. After winning some and learning lots, I worked on finetuning the art. I tried to incorporate some aspects of karate and tai chi that I had learned, hoping these elements would bring the magic to my matches. The first attempt was with the “go” of goju. I charged at my opponent with the mindset that I would be a steamroller and muscle my way to a triumphant win. Instead, I steamrolled myself right into her drop shoulder throw. The next round I decided to take the opposite approach; I was “the empty gi jacket” and allowed the softness of my tai chi practice to set my energy on the mat. My mis-directed softness was rewarded with a penalty point as I allowed her to walk me gently right out of bounds. I watched match after match of others’ judo to try to learn and replicate what they were doing. I watched match after match of mine, focused on my opponent, rather than trying to learn what I was doing… it took a long time for me to begin to develop my own judo. Winning was important to me and sometimes (both in judo dojo and karate dojo) I missed out on learning because I made it a death-match in order to win. Many many matches later, and many learning experiences later, some of the learning finally started to sink in…
As I began to compete at a higher level, the expertise of competitors was greater. A technique that worked against one person, didn’t necessarily work against everyone, and I found myself once again, needing to be like the willow tree and “bend with the wind.”
Training was challenging and for six years I competed all year and practiced at a high level. Training was six days a week, two and sometimes three times per day. I trained with many partners better than myself which was tremendously humbling, but allowed me to grow. I was learning how to fight. And at the end of the day, we are really just fighting ourselves.
On finding my own style
I believed that “time in” makes a difference and so I continued to show up...even after a long day of work or hard day at home. I wanted to improve. I tried really hard to imitate those I considered ‘experts’ in the Arts. I spent countless hours watching their videos, trying to figure out how they did what they did. Instructors would often say to me, “You need to find your own style...what is your karate/judo?” At the time, I wasn’t confident that ‘my judo’ or ‘my karate’ was “right” or good enough. It took time and thousands of repetitions to gain confidence in ‘my style.’ On so many levels, doing is so much better than talking about doing.
One day during a particularly gruelling training session, I finally got it. I was doing a long randori session, and my exhaustion levels were so high that I didn’t have the energy to be self-conscious or plan out a strategy. Everything was act and react. My body seemed to move by itself, having developed an awareness that was quite apart from my mind. I was relaxed, techniques flowed easily and I was oblivious to the passage of time. I remember the feeling of when my body reacted with a beautiful counter throw and I sent my opponent sailing over my head. The thud of the throw and the ease of technique was beautiful...it’s incredible when it comes together. When I allowed my body to do what it knew how to do and got out of my head, it worked. Moments like that are difficult to create or replicate...it was about being completely present in that moment and allowing the body to act.
Sometimes, when we have the basics right (in Martial Arts and also in life), we’ll naturally flow into our own style...and this usually happens with some character work along the way. Most karate and judo journeys or life journeys begin with working on our character and finding our gifts through the work. Many of us remember our first sparring or randori where we are confronted with the various shades of fear, frustration, anger and self-doubt. For some of us, that is still the case. But it is only by not turning our face away, staying on the mat and showing up for more, do we ever so slowly discover ‘our style in karate or judo’, gain confidence, and become better versions of ourselves.
The thing about Karate and Judo is that it is always more than just karate or Judo. It is an art that pushes you to confront yourself in the most truthful way possible- at the level of the body when grappling with another person. There is no retreat here into excuses. How you deal with what comes up on the mat reveals a lot about who you are in real life. Are we even showing up to the mat?
To show up to train is a challenge in itself; to show up to compete, another challenge. During a match, a person is most vulnerable when attacking or transitioning; you have to fully commit to your technique if you wish to be successful with it. Attempting something ‘halfway’ will have the same result. It is in doing that we develop the strength to be vulnerable and thereby most strong.
Once you have found success however, you cannot “get attached to one sword or one method" (Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy)
Over the years I have developed certain techniques or positions that work. I remember a chapter of training in which I was able to finally begin to work around an opposing strong dominating grip. It used to cripple me and I couldn’t break the grip and struggled with using it until one coach worked the overhook into a throw technique that worked beautifully. I was so happy to finally have a strategy that worked that I zeroed in on it and tried it in every circumstance. There is no perfect tool that works in every circumstance. Once again, I needed to learn to be like the willow and bend with the wind when the technique wasn’t working. I remember fighting for the gold medal match in Morocco and positioning myself off balance, trying to get the overhook, ...so focused on one thing, that I missed the opportunity to see what was right in front of me. I ended up losing that match. It was such a good lesson.
When we hold so tightly onto something, and have difficulty adapting in a situation, it can lead to difficulties.
Finally, on a practical level, how do we physically get through these challenges in the moment. It is the breath that connects the conscious to our subconscious. Understanding how to use our breath effectively can drastically improve not only our martial arts, but our daily lives. We learn from a young training age, Kata Sanchin, and continue to study this breathing kata for our entire karate lives. There are so many levels of breath work in this kata and I am just beginning to understand some aspects.
Learning how to breathe when striking or when receiving a strike; learning how to breathe to be able to lift weight with greater ease; learning how to breathe to recover more quickly in a match; learning how to breathe to control oneself or even to control anxiety and stress or reduce heart rate, have all been skills that are different, but connected and so valuable for better living.
Experiencing cold water training has been connected to this and breathing through the experience is tremendously important. Receiving the cold water, embracing it and using breath to shift a mental resistance to discomfort has been an incredible skill that I am learning to improve. The depth of our experiences are sometimes tied to the quality of our breathing. As we begin to release craving and clinging or aversions and accept our shift into the uncomfortable we can experience incredible benefits.
“A Cedary Fragrance”
I wash my face with cold water -
not for discipline,
nor the icy, awakening slap
but to practice
to make the unwanted wanted.
I have learned that I have everything that I need
“There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.”
― Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings
After I became a Black Belt (and even more so after Nidan),I knew I'd have to take more responsibility for my training, but I didn't realize exactly how that would play out. There were times that I fought the challenges. I would run classes and then wondered when I would be able to do my own training. At the end of the day, there are no excuses...if it’s important to me, I will make it happen. When you are in this position, you really need to take full responsibility for training. Whether or not a Sensei or Coach is there to help along the path, cannot determine whether one moves forward on the path. Even during a time of pandemic, working two full time jobs, dealing with stress, grieving the loss of a loved one, having another family move into my home, being a mom, teaching,,, and more… I had to make time for my own training if it was important to me. That meant 4:00 am training sessions and well-planned days. My reason for doing what I did had to be greater than any excuse not to do it...if it mattered to me. This is not to say push through everything is always the answer. Balance is crucial. Sometimes during long days, things were busy and even a bit lonely. But during these times, I found myself needing to dig deep and find answers within my own experiences. This was probably the most difficult and equally one
of the fullest growth experiences that I’ve ever had. Through blood, sweat, tears, and quiet on the path, I found what I had inside of me helped make me stronger. And I discovered that everything I needed was inside of me.
At the end of the day...it's really just about you. Are you going to let others dictate how and when you will practice or how much...Will you allow others’ feedback to shake your confidence or nurture growth? There has to be a strong motivation to continue to train and push through perceived “pain” of a tough practice… and a really good reason to start training at all in order to experience results. There have been times that I have wondered “what on earth am I doing here?” Understanding the “why” behind what I do is crucial for pushing forward when times are tough.
I remember traveling alone to Morocco for Judo Veteran World Championships last year. It was really challenging and lonely at times, but so very incredible to experience. I remember a moment when I was standing in the coral waiting to be announced onto the mats and I was surrounded by hundreds of people in the crowd. Beside me stood a bright-eyed 8yr old Moroccan boy who carried my bucket of items (water bottle) etc...and he stood there with an enormous grin looking up at me. (I had just given him a pack of gum - he was ecstatic)... and as I looked at him and looked around at other judokas...I thought of all the people back home who had helped to get me there; the people who had made sacrifices to spend time with me or offer financial support or train me; I thought of the people who encouraged me along and were cheering for me no matter what the outcome was that day. I knew in that instant that even when the path feels lonely, we are not alone. I will forever be thankful for those people who have been ‘in my corner’ in body and spirit. And although I put the reps in on the mat and the sweat and blood and tears… there were people who smiled, encouraged, and gave ...in order to help me grow. I will be so grateful to give back to honour those who gave to me…
On giving back
And so, here we are today. I’m continuing to train in various disciplines, learning about how they all connect, developing balance, working on myself, and enlarging my capacity to help others. Teaching makes me feel alive and I’m so thrilled to have the opportunity to work with others. I am passionate about providing the opportunity to experience the same tools and potential life-changing impact of karate and Martial Arts. One of the best ways to learn is to teach and I am privileged to have the opportunity to do so. Our experiences can be enriched by sharing these tools and joys.
I remember being asked why I keep getting up at 4:00 am to workout, or why I condition my arms against a tree, or why I show up to compete, or why I work hard… For me, it’s not about the medal so much as it is about who I am becoming as a result of the challenges along the way. Yes, results and winning are important, but standing on a podium comes second to the character changes and inner strength that is developed as a result of the journey and the happiness and peace that follows. No one sees us practice our katas in the basement or run the hills in the dark… it’s about doing what we know we need to do in order to become the people we want to be and experience the kind of life we can with the gifts offered through Karate and training… Mohammed Ali said, “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.“ As our training progresses through different ‘chapters’, we can ask ourselves Only to the extent that man exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him. In this lies the dignity of daring.” (Karfried Graf Durckheim) I am so grateful to have people in my life who won’t let me settle for anything less than my best. At the end of the day, I’m also grateful to have opportunities to continue to grow and learn and hopefully will continue on this path for the rest of my life. It’s up to me to take the next steps. And as always, “on with the dance, let joy be unconfined” (Byron).